Recent Grads, Beware of “Marketing” Companies

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Though I’m by no means a recent college grad, like many of them I find myself nosing around for job opportunities so I can do things like pay my rent, feed myself, and drink with reckless abandon. Finding a job can be one of the hardest things in the world, but sometimes you think you’ve hit the jackpot – you apply for a position, and within days the company can’t seem to get ahold of you fast enough. They, despite having a name along the lines of “XYZ Business Consultants,” inform you that they’re a “marketing company.” Well shit, how cool is that?!? Everyone wants to work in “marketing,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you to watch out for these companies, because nine times out of ten, they are bullshit.

What they usually end up being are MLMs, or Multi Level Marketing companies. That’s just a fancy name for a pyramid scheme. This is how they work: As an employee, you go door to door, six days per week, selling something. It could be coupons, sports tickets, or services for a “known” company. You work strictly on commission (usually about $10 per sale), but your main focus is on advancement. You do this by doing well enough to warrant them sticking new recruits underneath you. The company grows not through the sales you make, but by the number of people you’re able to add to the base of your “pyramid” – that’s what makes it a MLM.

The interviews go something like this: You go to the office, and the “manager” speaks to you for around 15 minutes about the company, overhyping what they do and downplaying the real nature of the business (note that the script they follow makes them come across as very candid). If they like you (they will), they send you to the second “interview,” which is just you going out into the field with a salesperson. At any point, if either you decide you’re not interested or they determine you “don’t have what it takes” (there’s a lot of ambition/work ethic shaming that goes on), they will leave your ass in the middle of nowhere. I’ve seen this happen myself, when I was dumb enough to think these were legit opportunities. When the other “candidate” with me decided he was done, the salesperson just pulled over and left him somewhere in VA Beach. If you make it through the “interview,” you go back to the office around 8pm, where they’ll offer you the “job.” I declined, because I don’t entirely hate myself.

The “marketing” buzzword is how they draw young people in, so it’s important to know how that whole part of a business works. There’s advertising, which is what you see in print, the internet and on television. It’s collateral designed to compel you to take action and drive you into the arms of a salesperson. Usually, this is contracted out to large agencies that are very clear about being creative advertising firms. Then there’s sales, which is pretty straightforward. Whether inbound or outbound, the goal of sales is to get the customer to agree to a purchase. Finally, there’s marketing. Marketing can do a couple of things. One aspect is the creation of internal collateral. This can be anything from website or catalog copy, or brochures used by the salespeople. It’s their job, once a potential customer is compelled by an ad, to provide more information and act as the final push to get them into a sales situation.

The other function of marketing is for metrics-based sales planning. They’ll take sales results, online data, focus groups, and various other tests to help determine how and to whom the company should be positioning their product. This is the primary function of external “marketing” firms. They either already have data that would otherwise be costly to obtain through primary research for a company or, in the case of smaller firms, they have the capabilities to collect this data that the company simply does not. This is why a lot of recent grads, after joining a legitimate marketing firm, get jaded with the practice. It’s not glamorous and creative like they hoped. Instead, it’s pouring over spreadsheets to see which people, of which age group, in which geographic area purchased a given product or service.

The MLMs have gotten slick with their own marketing, and can appear as legitimate businesses. The one that contacted me recently had a nice looking web page where they even featured their management team, had a well-written (but vague) mission statement, and included links to their Facebook and twitter pages. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you’re being courted by a MLM, but here are some giveaways:

  • They call themselves a “marketing” company, but their website makes little to no mention of their process/strategy. Even more telling, they don’t tout any kind of metrics-based approach. Remember, that’s the primary function of external marketers.
  • They talk about being a “sports,” “entertainment” or “business” marketing firm. MLMs want to attract type-A, competitive people (particularly men), and know that these are desirable fields for those types. Be especially wary if they say something like “You’ll do well here if you’re a former athlete.” In the sports and entertainment industries, the marketing is typically done in-house. Don’t think for a minute that it could ever be so easy to be considered for a marketing position with the Washington Nationals.
  • Their entry level position is called something like a “Junior Executive.” The people who glom onto MLMs tend to have a very inflated sense of self, while at the same time are too dumb to realize that what they’re doing is a scam. What kind of person could call themselves a “junior executive” while selling crap door to door with a straight face? That’s right, a self-important, go-getting moron.
  • They’re only hiring for entry level positions. This isn’t entirely unheard of, but realistically no respectable company has only ONE type of opening, and when they do they’ll usually come out and say that it’s entry-level sales (thereby disqualifying them as a marketing firm). When you see that, it’s a good indication that the only way to advance is by climbing the pyramid from within.
  • The management team seems young. At the place that contacted me, the “president” of the company couldn’t have been more than 25, and he only started there (at the bottom, of course) in 2010. His LinkedIn profile refers to the firm as a being in the “Marketing and Advertising industry,” while the “CEO” (only 27 himself) lists it as “Management Consulting.” In no way are two under-30 dipshits from middling schools equipped to run legitimate marketing firms.
  • They place heavy emphasis on “entrepreneurial spirit,” “unlimited income,” “a team environment” and “passion for advancement.” The first two are just codewords for “this job pays by commission only.” No reputable company would take a fresh college grad and place him in a commision-only sales position, because sales is a nuanced field that takes time to learn. The last two refers to the cult-like atmosphere MLMs cultivate. They do chants in order to get “psyched up” every morning. It’s a tactic used to promote group-think and hide the fact that you’re working six days per week for little pay for a sham company.
  • There are no real qualifications for getting hired. Real marketing firms look for people with genuine quantitative abilities. MLMs make their requirements, if they have any, intentionally vague and universal. They need to cast a wide net in order to find the few who will drink the kool aid.
  • Rather than emailing you to set up a phone interview, they call right away, or email and ask you to call them. The people who “advance” within the pyramid are by default the slickest talkers, so their odds of recruiting people increase when they can speak to you one on one, when you don’t have much of a chance to process what’s being said.

I’m sure there are more indicators, but these are the ones I’ve noticed. The bottom line is, use your common sense. If it seems too good to be true, and they’re a little too eager to talk to you, it’s probably a scam.

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